Outdoor Corner: It surely is a Grand Place

Lyle Johnson
Fort Livingston, built on the west end of Grand Terre Island, shown from the lookout tower on Grand Isle State Park.

Grand Isle. When those two words are uttered, a conversation is always generated. Lots of memories have been made there, some good while others are not so good. If one likes fishing, the beach, the sun and maybe a little night life, the memories are great. If one doesn’t care for the sun, sand, the smell of fish and traffic, the opposite might be true.

My first memory of Grand Isle took place nearly 60 years ago on a vacation with my first cousin Jeff Bourque and his family. I remember the ride lasting forever as Uncle Pete drove us to our camping spot on the beach.

Their camper was the drop-in type in the back of his Ford truck. I remember some fish (white trout mostly) being caught, but not by me, which got eaten on the beach. My next experience for me on the island was in my early 20's. I was introduced to the offshore part of fishing in the salt water.

That type of charter fishing was somewhat new, so all of the boats docked at Martin’s Marina (now the Sand Dollar). “Doc” Kennedy owned the Wahoo, a 52’ wooden boat that accommodated 6 anglers as well as a deck hand. The Wahoo was the boat we fished on most of the time, as Doc was our favorite skipper. Other boats we fished on were the Seahawk (Captain Tim Sebastian) and the Kelty-O (Captain Mickey Ridenoir).

Since that time I’ve had the pleasure of heading to that part of our state many times, and it always involved fishing of some sort. Offshore fishing was always enjoyable, but the inshore fishing for specs and redfish rank at the top of the list as well.

This past weekend, Deborah and I headed back to the island for a Guice family gathering with plenty of fishing and cooking on the menu. Grand Isle has grown astronomically since the last hurricane. Just like other communities on the edge of the Gulf, storms have played a role in the ups and downs in its history.

Grand Isle has been repeatedly pummeled by hurricanes throughout its history. On average, Grand Isle has been affected by tropical storms or hurricanes every 2.68 years (since 1877), with direct hits on average every 7.88 years. Some of the more severe are listed here:

In 1860 a 6-foot (2m) unnamed storm surge and great winds resulted in the total devastation of the island. In the1893 Atlantic hurricane season Grand Isle was devastated by a 16-foot (5m) storm surge. In the1909 Atlantic hurricane season, the island was hit with a second 16-foot (5m) storm surge.

Grand Isle has a central ridge which is elevated several feet above sea level, which is called a chenier, derived from the French for "oak ridge." Unlike many other barrier islands in the gulf the chenier on Grand Isle allowed for the growth of extensive oak groves whose roots provided a livable land. Indians such as the Chitimachas and the Ouachas lived in the area for 2,000-6,000 years and probably visited the area to hunt and fish.

By the 1720's the French began to develop an interest in the Barataria region for colonization. The Barataria route from New Orleans was opened when a canal was completed to the Mississippi River to Bayou Barataria. Some old maps indicate the presence of what might have been a Fort called Fort Blanc in the mid 1700's.

But Grand Isle wasn’t the first place to develop. In 1763 Monsieur Du Rollin was given a land grant to the island of Chenier Caminada (now Elmer’s Island). He later sold it to Francisco Caminada who gave it his name.

The Spanish built a watchtower and pilot station on the western tip of Grand Terre in 1780. The first documented settlements on Grand Isle start from the 1780's. Jacques Rigaud received a land grant from Spanish Governor Galvez in 1781 for 120 arpents. One arpent is about 0.85 acres. This was followed by more land grants.

The Spanish granted ownership to all the land on the island in 6 years. The Spanish encouraged colonization, so land grants split the island among four men: Jacques Rigaud, Joseph Caillet, Francisco Anfrey and Charles Dufrene.

1805 to 1814 were the pirate years for the area when Jean Lafitte and his privateers were based on nearby Grand Terre. They raided mostly Spanish ships for "black ivory" (slaves) and other booty to be resold in New Orleans. However, Grand Isle did not have a usable harbor like Grand Terre, making it ill-suited for privateering. Lafitte and his band were forced off Grand Terre in 1814 by the U.S. government.

Construction started on Fort Livingston in 1841 on Grand Terre. Many of Lafitte's men such as Louis Chighizola did retire on the island. There are many stories of pirate treasure on Grand Isle. After the Civil War, the island also became a popular summertime resort, and famous visitors such as Lafcadio Hearn and Kate Chopin wrote of its beauty.

Until construction of a highway to Grand Isle in the 1930's, travel to the island was usually made by steamer via the Harvey Canal and Bayou Barataria. The mighty hurricane of Oct 1, 1893 leveled many of the popular hotels on the island. Before the 1893 storm Grand Isle experienced a resort boom, with some predicting it would become the Riviera of the South.

In the 1880's it was possible to travel to Grand Isle from New Orleans in eight hours by steamer for only $2 dollars. A railroad completed in 1890 to Myrtle Grove in Iberville Parish reduced travel time to 4 hours.

One of the most famous of Grand Isle's 1890 resorts was the 160-room Ocean Club, built in 1892, only to be destroyed in 1893 by the storm. Like the Titanic, its owner claimed nothing could blow it away. The 1893 hurricane killed 2000 people on the Gulf Coast and wiped the island of Chenière Caminada (to the west of Grand Isle), killing almost half of that islands 1500 inhabitants.

Over 230 years later, the routine is pretty much the same. The seven mile island is much more developed due to the oil industry, but fishing and tourism remain the largest draw there. The residential population hovers around 1500 but numbers rise to 12,000 during the big summer events.

Our group did pretty good on the fishing side. The boat group caught 50 or so trout in two days chasing the birds out of Fourchon. While the road gang, which I was a part of, caught 53 fish in two days. There was also a crabbing outing that paved the way for a crab boil on the patio at Ricky’s Motel, along with a fish fry the following night.

Grand Isle is a great family place to spend a vacation. We met a group from McComb, Mississippi that was camping on the beach in the state park. They come to the island often with kids and all, and pitch tents to fish, cook, and enjoy the sand.

I know I’m probably a little prejudiced, but the folks in Louisiana are pretty cool. On Saturday night after sampling some of the local cuisine at the Starfish Café and a walking tour of the state park, we headed back to the patio at Ricky’s.

It was full of folks enjoying the night cooking and listening to good music. We were invited to eat boiled crabs at one table. At another table we ran into a gentleman and his girlfriend we met that day at the fish cleaning table that offered us fried fish and shrimp. What a treat! It really is a Grand place to spend some time.

Remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard. Be safe in the outdoors and may God truly bless you!

Lyle Johnson is President of the Louisiana Outdoor Writer's Association